The Bill of Rights, the freedoms of the United States including religion and speech, and the right to bear arms are among the many things celebrated by ‘we the people’ on the Fourth of July annually. Those and many of the other privileges we are accorded as a ‘free’ people are only very distant dreams for far too many people in the world. If freedom was just a choice, almost everyone would gladly pick it.
Most parishes in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe will use a special proper for Independence Day from the Roman Missal in place of the regular daily Mass. Not all priests are on board with this, and some will honor the feast day of the designated saint, who in most dioceses is Elizabeth of Portugal. This saint was born a princess, the daughter of the King of Aragon, and her canonization was a result of her constant giving and care of the poor. Sometimes called ‘the peacemaker,’ Elizabeth used her position to build hospitals, shelters, and convents, and stood up for the rights of the lowly and oppressed. She was symbolic of what this holiday really means.
On one recent Fourth of July, the presiding priest instructed the choir not to include the well known patriotic songs because that is not what the liturgy is about. Although there is a certain element of truth there, patriotism does not have to be about who has the most guns or drives the biggest truck; it is about the right to choose or not choose those things for ourselves and for the well-being of every human on the planet. That doesn’t give anyone the authority to dictate to others, but rather to make sure every human soul has the right to make those choices. After all, Jesus instructed us to love and care for one another.
The priest is given a choice of three opening prayers for the Independence Day liturgy. All three of them express the desire of the faithful to open their hearts to Jesus and the Gospel. They call for that openness to knock down walls and boundaries that nations may not inhibit the expression of that great love. The prayers cry out for peace and justice.
Again, after Communion, the priest is given three more options. Each of these prayers asks that through the Eucharist, the faithful are strengthened to seek peace, justice, and mercy, and for the wise use of the gifts God has given. They ask that we share what we have for the welfare of all.
The first correspondence in Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran Pastor who was arrested, framed, and executed by the Nazis in 1945, demonstrates the shock of suddenly losing the right to make any choice at all. The opening note is to the prisoner from his father in April 1943, when he was first arrested. It is a brief respite from the reality of the situation, assuring Dietrich that he is thought of frequently, and recent memories of his presence lifts the family’s spirits.
In response, the minister assures his parents that he is alright. Even as he tells them that he is not bothered by the relentless suffering associated with prison life, might even quit smoking, the undertone of his agony begins to emerge. He speaks in detail of the memories his father has raised, and very clearly finds solace in the presence of the Lord. At the end of his letter, Bonhoeffer asks for some personal items like toiletries, writing paper, and boot polish. The next letter is to his father from the Nazi Judge Advocate, telling him that the request to visit the prisoner and bring him supplies has been denied. The de-humanizing was begun.
To many Americans in 2014, the Nazi terror has long subsided. The earth is a lot smaller and our personal worlds have become more personal. The right to free speech is challenged when notable figures lose their careers and businesses for expressing their opinion with no sign of forgiveness. Free speech doesn’t give a person the right to insult and demean, and we won’t always agree with each other, but in order to preserve the freedom, we must agree to protect everyone’s right to say it.
Freedom of religion also gives each individual the right to choose their method of worship, and that includes no worship at all. There are no stories in the Gospel where Jesus forced anyone to believe as he did; neither did the patriarch of three religions, Abraham, and neither did Muhammad. Human history is littered with cases of people who were forced to believe or not believe one way or the other, and it has been the greatest cause of war and oppression in the Middle East since the beginning of history.
The list of freedoms given Americans is awe-inspiring, and yet our jails still house more prisoners than anywhere else in the world. Our violence toward one another has hit an unprecedented level that even makes learned historians ashamed. We cannot seem to come to a fair consensus whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. But we still have the right to choose freedom, something which far too many have never known. We should provide shelter to fleeing immigrants, that’s why most of our parents, grandparents and ancestors came here in the first place, but as the leaders of the ‘free’ world, we should also be finding ways to solve the issues that choke lives and crush spirits. Freedom is a choice, but only if one is privileged to have a choice.